- The Washington Times - Monday, March 12, 2012

BEIRUT | Syrian activists said Monday that pro-government gunmen killed at least 16 people - including children - in a rebel stronghold recaptured by the government in the embattled city of Homs, fueling concerns the government is carrying out reprisals in territory it has captured.

State media in Damascus, which often ignores activists’ claims, confirmed killings in Homs but blamed “armed terrorists” as it frequently calls those behind the uprising.

Fresh from stamping out rebel centers of resistance in Homs, government forces are pressing on with new offensives in other parts of central and northern Syria.

The reports of the killings add to concerns that the hundreds of civilian deaths caused by the fighting will be compounded by reprisals against opposition supporters in the recaptured towns and neighborhoods.

The reports add to the pressure on U.N. Security Council members who are meeting to decide what to do next to stop the violence. A peacemaking mission by U.N. envoy Kofi Annan faltered with both government and opposition refusing to talk to one another.

The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said at least 16 people were killed Sunday night, while the Local Coordination Committees said 45 were “murdered.” Both groups said children were among the dead.

They accused “shabiha,” gunmen akin to a militia who basically do the government’s bidding and who have played a major role in crushing the year-old uprising, of carrying out the killings.

Homs is the Syrian city hardest hit by violence since the uprising against President Bashar Assad’s regime began in March last year.

Several Homs neighborhoods, including Karm el-Zeytoun, where Sunday’s deaths occurred, were controlled by rebels and retaken by government forces earlier this month.

Karm el-Zeytoun has witnessed intense anti-regime protests in the past months.

It is one of several neighborhoods in Homs that have large populations of Alawites - a Shiite offshoot that dominates the Damascus regime - and Sunnis, who make up much of the opposition against it.

The Observatory said after the killings many people fled Karm el-Zeytoun and other nearby neighborhoods, fearing pro-government gunmen might carry out similar attacks.

Syria’s state-run media quoted an unnamed official as saying that armed groups in some areas in Homs are kidnapping people, then killing and disfiguring them in order to bring international condemnation to the regime.

Mr. Assad’s regime blames the uprising on armed groups and terrorists acting out a foreign conspiracy.

But activist groups such as the Observatory put the blame squarely on the government. The Observatory called on the U.N. to investigate the deaths.

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